Kelsey Diemer feels the same energy as a doctor that she did a few years ago when she was among the best 3-point shooters in college basketball.
Only this is no game.
Her current opponent: The coronavirus. And while there’s no parallel between a pandemic and a sporting event, Diemer sees value to taking the same approach now as a doctor as she did when she was an athlete: She simply needs to find a way to prevail.
“Medicine in general speaks to that athlete side of me,” said Diemer, former guard at Florida Gulf Coast. “I want to win, and winning means that our patients get better.”
She’s not alone in that feeling.
Several former athletes who now work in medicine and stand on the front lines of this fight shared their stories in recent days and they have plenty of consistencies. They’re scared. Worried. Hopeful. And at work, whether around colleagues or patients, they all feel that same competitive fire that they did on game days.
“I try to figure out a game plan to attack it,” said Diemer, now a doctor in southwest Florida. “Our game plan is changing kind of as we go based on what we’re seeing. So, there’s a lot of parallels, and 100% it speaks to the athlete in me.”
Diemer went by Kelsey Jacobson when she was a record-setting 3-point shooter at Florida Gulf Coast. Kristi Koplin is an Olympic-hopeful bobsledder for the U.S.. Shannon Farrell was a five-sport athlete between high school and college. Bren Jensen is a three-time Paralympian for the U.S. in volleyball. Karen Rogers-Campbell played soccer and basketball in college, a Hall of Famer at her alma mater of Saint Joseph’s in Maine.
Farrell is a nurse in upstate New York, Koplin a nurse in Utah, Rogers-Campbell a nurse in Maine and Jensen a nurse practitioner in Indiana.
They don’t know each other. But they’re teammates now.
“We’re all coming together,” Koplin said. “And that to me is like sport.”
Koplin finished her season in January and returned home to Park City, Utah to resume work as a nurse. It was a busy time; the annual Sundance Film Festival was happening, amid whispers about a virus that was then predominantly affecting China.
Koplin said once a local bartender tested positive, “it blew up." She has swabbed countless people at the clinic since, wondering if she's exposing herself to the virus.
Like many of her colleagues working in the COVID-19 world, she takes every possible precaution; she showers at work after her shift, trying to ensure that she doesn’t expose her parents to anything. Her work clothes go immediately into the washing machine.
“I just feel like this is such an unknown,” said Koplin, who plans to return to bobsled next fall — assuming bobsled season happens. “There’s so many uncertainties and I’m like, ‘’I don’t want to take any chances’ in the sense that I’m dragging this super-contagious virus around my house.”
Jensen can relate. She’s a COVID-19 survivor.
Being a survivor is her specialty. She lost a leg in a lawn-mower accident as a child and went on to represent the U.S. in the 2004, 2008 and 2012 Paralympics. She caught the virus, and a doctor that she shares an office with tested positive soon afterward. There’s no way of knowing how Jensen got it or if she transmitted it to anyone else, but she was racked by guilt anyway.
“I’ll be the first to admit that I was very skeptical,” Jensen said. “Those first couple of weeks, I was even telling patients, “There’s really not much to be concerned about unless you have underlying health issues or chronic lung disease.’ And then I came down with it and I realized how serious it was, because I’m completely healthy and it took me down.”
She stayed down for three weeks, then returned to work. Her office has gone to what’s called virtual visits, where patients are being seen remotely.
“That’s been a lifesaver just to keep everybody else calm,” Jensen said.
Calmness is something Farrell has not found easily.
Last week, she and another nurse held a man’s hand as he died, separated from his family because of the threat of the virus. Easter dinner with her own family a couple days later was held outside, in a Wendy's parking lot, social distancing practiced as they stood around their cars.
The strangeness has been impossibly hard for Farrell to process. She knew as a high school junior, seven years ago, that this was her calling. But this may be beyond any worst-case scenario she envisioned.
“I helped to take care of my grandmother when she was sick with leukemia, and I remember liking that feeling of being helpful and making her feel more comfortable," Farrell said. “At the end of the day, all of these people, they’re sick and they just want to feel more comfortable."
On work days, she’s waking up a couple hours earlier than normal, just to prepare herself for the challenge that awaits.
“This is the time we never thought we’d have to live through,” Farrell said. “But here we are, and we’re figuring it out.”
Rogers-Campbell has two teen-aged children that she can’t see as much as she wants right now, out of fear of making them sick. They’re staying with their father, and the days are taking a toll on her.
They’re taking a toll on her co-workers as well.
“I see it every day,” Rogers-Campbell said. “We cry, we laugh. I think the more we talk about it, the more comfortable we feel. It’s not good to hold in those feelings.”
She’s been a nurse for nearly 30 years. This is, without question, a time like none other in her career.
“It’s difficult, but it’s what I signed up to do,” Rogers-Campbell said. “It’s my job and I love it. So we’re going to keep fighting. Because if we don’t go into work, who’s going to take care of these people?”